BOOK REVIEW : Angry Voice of a Wit Both Pitiless, Compassionate : THE REAL THING; by<i> Doris Lessing</i> : HarperCollins $20; 214 pages


Doris Lessing has a powerful voice and a particular one. It speaks in anger at the distortion of personal relations in an unsound society, but speaks it with a wit that manages to be both pitiless and compassionate.

The mix can be as stirring as it is unusual. As we bob uneasily in our times, Lessing’s voice takes us by the short hairs and gives an invigorating yank up. What the voice is not, though, is naturally graceful or spontaneous. It needs warm-up time and some complex and well-thought-out gear ratios to get it moving.

The sketches and stories in “The Real Thing” do not show Lessing at her best. At times, they are plain embarrassing. Lessing drives her point through them and they tear. A heavy moral forces a sketchy fable.


Take two of the stories that, as many of them do in one way or other, deal with women as victims. In one, a pregnant schoolgirl flees her suburban home, fearing her parents’ anger, and gives grisly birth in a London alley. In the other, a middle-aged wife, babied all her adulthood by her husband, faces the prospect of a hysterectomy and dissolves into a blubbering heap in a hospital ward. Another patient, whose life has been harder but more independent, buoys her.

Lessing genuinely feels for her two victims and is genuinely angry on their behalf. But--more like an overworked social worker than a novelist--she shows evident distaste for them as well.

Julie, the schoolgirl, is dull-witted and messy. The pathetic preparations she makes for her alley self-delivery--she brings a shopping bag containing sanitary pads, a towel, some string and a bit of satin for laying the baby upon--is pitifully jarring, and so is the horrific account of the birth. But instead of pity and perhaps terror, we feel impatience. “You silly cow,” we can sense Lessing mutter.

As for Mildred, who cries all night after her husband leaves her bedside, Lessing’s signaling is similarly peremptory. She is described as wearing “a pretty pink jacket”; but we know that it’s vulgar and that Lessing has no time for it. She is in a hurry to make her point. An old spinster, who has never had anyone to take care of her, comforts Mildred. Be strong, the author is saying; accept sorrow and be strong.

In “Sparrows,” the signaling approaches self-parody. A husband and wife sit at a cafe in a London park. He is angry and impatient at the failure of their grown daughter to make her own way; the wife wants to support her a little longer. Three fledgling sparrows light on their table. One grabs a crumb and flies off, a second hesitates but does the same thing. A third waits helplessly for the mother to feed it.

The husband has proved his point. But then, after flying off, the fledgling returns and feeds itself. The wife has proved her point. Reconciliation all around, except for the reader.

The two strongest stories are complex and witty reflections on the strong ties that endure even in a broken marriage. In “The Real Thing,” Jodi, a passionate and forthright American, is about to marry Henry, a worldly Englishman. Jodi is divorced and it is a clean break; so that’s no problem. Henry is also divorced--from Angela, his childhood sweetheart--and that ought not to be a problem. It is, though.

Over a comical and richly detailed country weekend, everything comes apart. Jodi goes to stay at the cottage still shared by Henry and Angela. So does Sebastian, another Englishman, who is engaged to Angela. It is all to be very civilized. It is so civilized, in fact, that Henry and Angela spend most of the time together in deep conversation, or on joint companionable errands. Jodi resigns, all but literally screaming. The ties of history, friendship, property and children between ex-wife and ex-husband--Sebastian’s own ex-wife is there in everything but the flesh--do not exclude the sexual and romantic lure of new beginnings, but they are far stronger.

“Pit,” which I like even better, plays the same theme in reverse. In this case, an Englishman who left his English wife years before to marry an earthy and passionate European refugee has had enough of passionate earthiness--not to mention having to support four children--and wants to come back. The ex-wife toys with the idea; then she realizes that the sheer material reality of her ex-husband’s new family would overwhelm both of them. Sensibly, she decides to visit a friend in Norway.

If not her complex very best, “Pit” and “The Real Thing” show what Lessing can do at her complex very good; and that is very good indeed. Both stories come in the later pages of the collection. The way to read it, I expect, is to start at the end, progress backward, and be prepared to drop off along the way.